The first half of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s novel about a New York therapist is less than revelatory, although that turns out to be for excellent reason. Grace Reinhart Sachs, an affluent Upper East Side mother with a thriving couples practice, frets almost generically about such privileged concerns as how much to push her son to continue with his violin lessons. She offers loving descriptions of an ideal husband — a pediatric oncologist — who somehow never gels into either a recognizable type or an intriguingly unique character. The absence of key friends and family members feels underexplained.
It doesn’t take long, however, for the reader to realize that these structural weaknesses are, in fact, intentional blurrings — vague, unsatisfying details seen from the perspective of an unreliable central character, a woman unable to look too closely at the sharp edges in her cashmere-cloaked life.
Grace has always been fascinated by the power of denial, but she misinterprets her preoccupation as professional, not personal. As the novel opens, she is about to publish a book, called “You Should Have Known,” exhorting women to stop constructing elaborate stories that justify the failings of the flawed men in their lives and to move on to more deserving partners. Interviewed by a writer for Vogue, Grace lays out the extent of women’s blindness in the face of romantic hope: “He could be holding up a placard that says I will take your money, make passes at your girlfriends, and leave you consistently bereft of love and support, and we’ll find a way to forget that we ever knew that. We’ll find a way to unknow that.”
It’s a given that Grace, as the happily married expert, isn’t actually a part of that “we,” but within days of uttering those words she learns that the mother of a schoolmate of Grace’s son has been murdered, and that her own husband, supposedly off at an oncology conference in Cleveland, has suddenly become unreachable. Grace experiences these two events as distressing but wholly unrelated, intelligently finding ways to unknow the significance of details whose meaning must be apparent to the reader — her husband’s cellphone, left behind; the persistent police interest in his whereabouts. It takes an accumulation of worrisome, undeniable new facts to topple the nest of comfortable illusions she has worked so hard to gather.